Today’s teenagers have more impressive college applications than a decade ago, and far more impressive ones than their parents had. Many teenagers seem to be entering this admissions process perfectly prepared. On paper they look almost too good to be true—dream candidates for any college—socially committed and brilliant, widely experienced in summer jobs, internships, and community service projects. Their resumés suggest their teeth glimmer whenever they smile and their hair blows in the wind even as they stand still.
As we prepare these paper-perfect students for higher education, are we undermining their ability to succeed in life? As we mold them to be so well balanced, are we actually making them feel unsure of their own footing? Are they so committed to being “perfect” that they fear being anything less? The most worrisome thing about this generation of driven students may be the fear of imperfection that’s being instilled in their psyches. This fear will stifle their creativity, impede their ability to experience joy, and ultimately interfere with their success.
When we speak to parents nationwide, we hear 2 very distinct views. Some parents see their kids’ jam-packed lives as a wonderful sign that they are poised for success. Others notice that their adolescents seem burdened, and they worry that their kids are missing opportunities for happiness during a time that is supposed to be carefree, a time before they have to earn a living and support families of their own.
The first group of parents shows justified pride that their children are driven to succeed and relish their accomplishments. They recognize that successful people always put in the extra effort. They’ve held their kids to high expectations and arranged the finest opportunities, and their active parenting style seems to have paid off. Some of their children seem to have garnered all of this success while remaining joyous and self-confident. If other kids exhibit signs of weariness or stress, these parents see it as the price to be paid for success. As long as their grades remain high and they continue to be involved in many extracurricular activities, their parents believe they must be doing well, regardless of outward or inward signs of stress.
The second set of parents has equal pride in their children’s accomplishments, but they are concerned that their children are too stretched, too pressured. They notice the signs of fatigue and pressure. They fear that happiness has been sacrificed in the name of accomplishment.
All parents want the same thing—that young people become happy, successful adults. To evaluate whether they are moving toward genuine success, we need to look less at accomplishments and more at kids themselves. The process of producing students who are perfect on paper may be working for some and seriously harming others. Those who seem to be thriving may be budding perfectionists who are headed for elite colleges as a reward for their accomplishments. But they may not be headed toward a lifetime of success and are unlikely to achieve a lifetime of happiness, satisfaction, and contentment.
Some materials mention “Big Lies” that parents shouldn’t project on the next generation. The first Big Lie—that successful adults are good at everything—is applicable here in a discussion of perfectionism. When was the last time any of us was good at everything? Probably in second grade—we got gold stars on our spelling papers; we were told we were great artists when we made construction paper Thanksgiving turkeys; on the playground everyone was an athlete and got a chance at bat.
Since those halcyon days, how many adults can say, “I’m good at everything”?
Most of us do quite well at one or two things and are less talented in many more. Successful people usually excel in one or two areas. Interesting people excel in a couple areas but also enjoy exposure to several fields even if they can’t be a star in all.
So why do we push the Big Lie on teenagers that they must be good at math, science, foreign languages, English, history, the arts, and athletics? Doesn’t this unrealistic expectation only foster the drive toward a perfectionism that is bound to crash land?